Russian colonel was ‘most successful CIA spy’ in recent years
June 7, 2012 1 Comment
By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Before the dust could settle from last month’s closed-door trial of Vladimir Lazar, and the arrest of an unnamed missile engineer on charges of espionage, Russia claims to have exposed yet another spy. Valery Mikhailov, a retired Russian counterintelligence officer, has been given an 18-year prison sentence for allegedly spying on behalf of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. In disclosing Mikhailov’s sentence yesterday, Moscow District Military Court officials were deliberately vague about Mikhailov’s alleged espionage activities, and provided limited information on the precise charges against him. But reporters, who were not allowed to attend Mikhailov’s trial, were told that he voluntarily approached CIA officers in Russia in 2001 and offered to spy on his country on behalf of the US, in exchange for regular payments in cash. Russian government prosecutors said that, from 2001 until 2007, when his activities were detected by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Mikhailov gave his American handlers access to over a thousand copies of secret or top-secret documents. Most of these, according to reports in the Russian media, had been prepared by FSB analysts for top-level Russian government officials, including the President, Prime Minister, and members of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. Russian government prosecutors say that Mikhailov was arrested following an extensive period of surveillance by the FSB, which allegedly resulted in the capture of an American CIA courier. The latter was apprehended while surreptitiously collecting classified documents copied by Mikhailov. Following his arrest, Mikhailov is said to have admitted that he earned over $2 million from his espionage activities.
Several Russian news outlets, including leading Russian newspaper Kommersant, report that Mikhailov was probably one of the CIA’s “most successful agents [in Russia] in recent years”. On Wednesday, I spoke with Kommersant’s US correspondent, Kirill Belyaninov, who had a simple question for me: if Mikhailov was indeed one of the CIA’s most valuable informants in recent times, what are the chances that Washington would try to get him out of the Russian penal colony to which he is currently headed? My response, which is quoted today in the paper, was that both Russia and the US might seek a spy exchange as a political method of decreasing diplomatic tensions between them. There is ample precedent for this, not only during the Cold War, when exchanges of captured spies between Soviet and American forces took place with impressive regularity in Berlin, but even in the current post-Cold-War environment. This was amply demonstrated by the case of the ten Russian illegals, who were captured by the FBI in 2010 and exchanged for several Western intelligence agents held in Russian prisons. It was the most extensive spy-swap between the US and Russia in several decades. Moreover, the speed with which the swap took place —less than ten days after the capture of the Russian spies by the FBI— reveals that the exchange had been considered by Washington, and may indeed have been the primary reason why the FBI moved in and arrested the ten Russian illegals at the time when it did.
In the case of Mikhailov, the CIA has at least one very compelling reason to exfiltrate him and his immediate family to the US: so as to show future potential recruits, in Russia and elsewhere, that the Agency would actively protect them and their families, should something go wrong. The Russians, from their side, have been systematically protesting the imprisonment of weapons dealer Viktor Bout, who last year began serving a 25-year prison sentence in New York. There are many who believe that Bout, who is a former Soviet military intelligence officer, and has been extremely helpful to Moscow’s post-Soviet diplomatic maneuvering, will not be staying in the US for much longer. I told Kommersant that a US-Russian swap involving Bout, possibly Mikhailov, Lazar, and others, “is quite likely” in the next few years. Until that happens, however, Mikhailov, Bout, Lazar, and others like them, will need to become accustomed to the austere ways of prison life.